In Praise of Dal…

Whenever I make dal, which I would estimate is about once or twice a year, I wonder why I don’t make it more often. For folks trying to save cash, it’s cheap as hell. For folks that want to cut down on their meat consumption, it’s veggie through and through. For folks who are keen on avoiding wheat: yup, check. It’s also incredibly quick and easy to make, and warms and fills the belly in a comforting way, like Mac & Cheese or scalloped potatoes.

As I have mentioned many times in the past – both here, and in my Market Share column – when it comes to cooking Indian food, there are few better guides than Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in Mango & Curry Leaves. And so it was to them that I turned for ideas. In the end, I decided to make the tok (or sour) Bangla Dal with a Hit of Lime, but what really made the meal was the wonderful contrasts in heat, texture and taste between the main course and its accompanying dishes: date and onion chutney, and cucumber pickle.

I started with the chutney, and though I stuck with the recipe for the most part – which is true for all of the dishes – I made a few changes based on the ingredients on hand and my tendency to follow my own instincts when it comes to cooking.

The chutney is also super easy: chop one large red onion and start it cooking over low heat in some sesame oil – about a teaspoon or so. When it has started to soften and brown, add as many chopped dates as are necessary to create a balance between the ingredients. The recipe does not call for water, but I really wanted it to become jammy, so I added about a half a cup and some red chilies and then let the whole thing just simmer over low heat until it reached that jammy consistency that I was looking for (about 30 minutes). You can keep it warm, or refrigerate it until the rest of the meal is ready.

The cucumber pickle was by far the most interesting dish because the ingredients were quite strange. That said, because I did not follow the recipe closely, I may have given it a slightly more Western twist (actual mustard, rather than mustard oil, which for some reason,  I mistrust). For the cucumber, the recipe suggests scraping out the seeds and pulp before chopping, but since I used the small Lebanese cucumbers, there was no need. I had a few cherry tomatoes on hand and so added them as well, chopping them finely.

For the dressing: take about a tablespoon of sesame seeds, a half teaspoon of cumin seeds, some fenugreek and some red chilies, and roast them in a dry frying pan. When they are toasty and fragrant, let them cool and then grind them into a loose paste. Mix the paste with equal parts lime juice and Dijon mustard – enough to make a sauce – and season with salt and pepper. The recipe also calls for nigella seeds, which add to the beauty of the dish and impart a slight bitterness. Chill before serving.

All you do for the dal is throw a half a cup of masur (red) lentils into four cups of unsalted water, bring it to a boil, and then simmer it for 20-30 minutes. You want it to stay soupy, so if it starts to dry up, just add some more water. When the timer rings, turn off the heat and just let it sit until you are ready to add the tempering.

Meanwhile, drop a thumb-sized chunk of tamarind into some boiling water and let it soak. Then chop up another red onion and about four cloves of garlic and cook them slowly over low heat in vegetable or sesame oil. You will need to have a spice mixture standing by that contains two teaspoons of coriander and one teaspoon of cumin (ground), one teaspoon of tumeric and another of red chilies.

When everything is good to go, add the spice mixture to the onions and garlic and cook until the spices become fragrant. Meanwhile, squeeze the tamarind pulp to make sure all the flavour is in the water, then strain. Pour the tamarind water over the onion mixture, add the dal, and stir. Let the dal come to the desired consistency by either cooking off the water, or adding more to create more soupiness.

Serve with rice, chutney, cucumber pickle, fresh cilantro, and lime wedges – for that hit of lime.

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